I was lucky enough to get an advanced reader copy of Kelly Barnhill’s The Witch’s Boy releasing September 16th. I loved the writing and way that Barnhill was able to give her story such a classic fairytale feel while adding in some unique elements. It’s a beautiful story that not only fans of middle grade will enjoy. This was my first of her books to read but will not be my last.
When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging, bewitched river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. Sure enough, Ned grows up weak and slow, and stays as much as possible within the safe boundaries of his family’s cottage and yard. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic that Ned’s mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it’s Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community.
In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned’s village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King. She is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: “The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.” But when Áine and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over?
With a deft hand, acclaimed author Kelly Barnhill takes classic fairy tale elements–speaking stones, a friendly wolf, and a spoiled young king–and weaves them into a richly detailed narrative that explores good and evil, love and hate, magic, and the power of friendship.
I am honored to be sharing part 3 of her prequel novella, The Mark of the Bandit. This is the perfect opportunity to get a taste of her writing style. You can read part 1 on Bookshelves of Doom and part 2 on Jessabella Reads.
The Mark of the Bandit
Long ago the nation suffered from a generations-long infestation of bandits. The Bandit Horde, while small in number, was an ever-present annoyance to the Realm. They were wily and tricky and wild. Sometimes violent. Always impossible to catch.
Most cities, like Áine’s own, built high walls around its borders, with large iron gates to the north, south, east and west, each with squat towers on either side where the Constablery minded the gates and waited at their desks for rumors of wrongdoing. The jails stood separate, inside the boundaries of the wall, like free-standing cages in the open air for all to see lest people lose their reason and join the Bandit Horde, and then lose their heads as well. Everyone knew it was just a ruse. No one could catch the members of the Horde. The only residents of the jails were low-level thieves at best, or at worse, simple victims of happenstance. They crouched in cages, their mournful faces turned to the sky. They would be kept that way for a full season, until the shame of their incarceration had fully erased any inclination toward banditry. Or they died in their cages – of shame, the official statement said, more proof of an individual who couldn’t be saved.
But that was a long time ago. No one had seen the Horde in ten years. It seemed that, without warning, the Horde disbanded, dissipated, shattered into bits –vanishing without a trace. No one had heard from them since. Still, the walls and gates stood firm. Because you never know.
Áine could see from far down the road that her father had not been jailed. Indeed, the jails were utterly empty. Which Áine found curious. Usually there was someone in those cages, if only just to remind the citizenry to keep itself on its toes. Áine pressed forward, determined to ask the constables a question or two.
She was about to knock on the old oak door of the constable’s tower when next door the stable gates flew open, and there was one of the lower constables astride his horse, and behind him was – good heavens! It was Áine’s mother. They thundered down the cobbled road and curved into the press of buildings and vanished from sight.
“Mother!” Áine called, but she didn’t answer, and probably didn’t hear Áine over the pounding of hooves against stones. Open-mouthed, Áine watched the space where her mother had just been, as if her worry and her shock would be enough make her mother reappear and come running, and hold Áine’s hand and tell her that everything was wonderful. Which was silly. Áine knew it was silly. She pressed her lips together and shook her head and tried to think practically. She had questions. There was someone inside. She knocked.
The heavy wood door opened with a slow creak and a man blinked from the shadowy gloom.
“Can I help you, my girl?” he said.
Áine gasped and took two quick steps backward. She was not a girl easily frightened, but this man was terrifying. His head had been shaved and so had his face, aside from a very thin mustache curving over his upper lip. His teeth had been sharpened to points and his skin, almost all of it, bore a tangle of tattoos – a chain around his neck, an eye on his forehead, a herd of horses running up one arm, and a nine-pointed star, the mark of the bandit, on the back of one hand. But that wasn’t what terrified her.
What terrified her most was the brand on his cheek. A large star surrounded by a circle, burnt into his skin. Áine knew what it meant. The tattoos and the teeth were marks that he was a member of the Bandit Horde. Or had been when there was still a Bandit Horde. But the brand meant that he belonged to the King – that he had turned on his brethren and confessed their secrets to the law. It also meant that he was a man not to be trusted. Not by bandits, because he was a traitor. And not by regular people, because he had once been a bandit.
“Oh,” he said quietly, a strange gleam in his eye. “I know who you are. You’re his child. I knew your grandparents, my girl. I knew them well.”
Áine knew that bad people sometimes told lies, and that she should take any of his words as seriously as she would a fishmonger selling before noon. She drew herself up and stated her name and the names of her parents. “My mother was just here. I saw her ride away. I learned from my neighbors that my father left with the Head Constable. I thought he would be here, but he is not. Where is my father, and where did my mother go?”
The man smiled and Áine took a step backward. The man smelled bad. And she didn’t like how he was looking at her – all slitted eyes and a smug grin. Like she had the answer to a question that she never would think to ask.
“Why do you think the Head Constable wanted your father, my girl?” the man asked.
“How would I know?” Áine said. “What the Constables want is their own concern. I have concerns of my own. Have you seen my father?”
He smiled again, and his face became soft. “Your eyes,” he said. “You have your grandmother’s eyes. How we loved her. How we would move Heaven and Earth to win her favor. How we would travel through the fires of Hell to snatch the circlet off the head of the Devil if she but asked for it. We’d steal the whole world and lay it at her feet.”
Áine backed away. She had no idea what the man was talking about, but he was clearly deranged.
“Thank you anyway,” she said, and she turned on her heel, walking as quickly as she could without appearing to run.
“Neither your father nor the Head Constable have come back here. I told your mother to go to the scene of the crime. And I’ll tell you something too, girl.” His voice echoed against the stone walls and rang through the quiet street. Áine couldn’t get away from it. “Why would the Law need the help of a baker – or a papermaker or a silversmith or whatever it is he’s decided to call himself these days – to assist in an investigation? Don’t you find that odd?”
Áine clenched her teeth until they nearly shattered in her mouth. Worry wasn’t practical. She wouldn’t worry. She wouldn’t. Áine hooked around the corner and broke into a run and didn’t stop until she arrived at the Mayor’s residence.
The Mayor lived in the largest, nicest house in the whole town – curved walls, polished white stone, balconies and verandas blossoming up the sides. Unlike most Mayors, he had come from humble beginnings – an orphan of unknown parentage, who became rich . . . somehow. Something in business. No one knew what, exactly.
His wealth was enough to erase concerns over his obscure background and to win the heart of a lady of high birth – a second cousin to the King himself. They made a handsome couple, both impeccably well-dressed and beautiful of face. The Mayor was famous for his exquisite gloves made of supple leather, hand-painted and hand-stitched with cunning designs adorning each finger and each palm. The Mayor’s Lady was famous for her whimsical hats, affixed sometimes with tiny birds emerging from tufts of white feathers arranged like clouds, or bright diamonds spangled across a black velvet dome and twinkling like stars. The entire city lived in a state of constant anticipation for the latest offering of her Ladyship’s most marvelous hats. Unfortunately, like the King, the Mayor’s Lady was spoiled, ill-tempered and dim-witted. Not only that, she had a tendency toward public temper tantrums, providing endless amusement to the local gossips – lovely hats or no.
And indeed, when Áine arrived at the Mayor’s house, the Mayor’s Lady was on the Lower West Veranda, the spot where she usually addressed the City (typically to elicit cheers and adulation for her most recent frock) screaming crazily to anyone who would listen. Her hair – usually coiffed and pinned in magnificent swirls or loops or tall towers of golden braids – had been torn and tousled, and looked to Áine like a clump of kelp, washed up on the shore. Her dress too had been torn, and her heavily painted face was a blur of streaks and smears, with a cloudy swirl of orange and blue and dark gray around her eyes, like storm clouds at sunset.
“Treachery!” she shrieked, beating her breast with her fists. “Treachery and perfidy! How DARE you accuse me! How DARE you!”
A crowd had gathered. They pressed close together, clucking and squawking and murmuring. Áine kept herself apart, trying to keep a long view. She could see her mother standing below the veranda with two men in constable’s uniforms. They bowed their heads close to one another, speaking quickly, with short, fast gesticulations. But Áine could see, even at this great distance, the relief on her mother’s face.
“I am innocent I tell you!” the Mayor’s Lady screamed again. There were soldiers on the veranda now. Three of them. All wearing the insignia of the King. “Go away! I am the King’s cousin. His favorite cousin! AND I WILL NOT BE MANHANDLED. DO NOT TOUCH ME, SIR!”
The soldiers, it seemed, did not care about the lady’s status or her lineage or her fine – or once fine – dress. They clapped her in irons and pulled her back into the house. The assembled crowd gasped. Her mother shook the hands of the men in uniform, a broad smile on her pretty face.
Áine, standing just separate from the fast-talking crowd, felt a wave of relief. The Mayor’s wife. Not my father. Everything is fine. And she was shocked to discover her own well of worry. And really, why would she? Why would she think her father was . . . Well. It seemed silly to even consider it. Her father was her father, and that was good.
And just thinking of her father – his face, his height, his mountainous self – made her remember what he always told her. When everyone around you is looking east, look west. Everyone in the crowd stared at the veranda. Áine broadened her gaze, scanning the whole square and the surrounding buildings, and the other balconies and verandas and windows and . . . no!
There on the fifth floor. On the far left. Áine ran closer. She climbed a tree and stared. The Mayor stood at the window, staring at the chaos on the ground. His face bore no emotion at all – it was just a blank. He turned and beckoned with a jerk of his head. And there, towering next to him, was Aine’s father.
“Get away from there, father!” her heart shouted. Her father hesitated, flinched. The Mayor clapped his left hand on the big man’s shoulder. He nodded. He offered his right hand to shake.
And even from down on the ground, Áine could see it. The Mayor’s hand was ungloved. And tattooed on the back of the hand, a nine-pointed star.
Áine ran home as though she was being pursued by a pack of dogs. Or a phalanx of soldiers. Or a horde of bandits. She skidded to her front door, and closed it behind her with a tremendous slam, breathing heavily all the while. The house was warm and cozy. The stout log that she had put on the fire earlier that day had burned slowly and evenly, as she knew it would. The kettle leaked steam from its nose. She poured the hot water into the stew pot, and put in a salt pork bone and sliced in potatoes and carrots and onions and lentils, forcing her rattling breath to calm. Telling herself over and over that she had nothing to worry about. That everything was fine. She added a handful of bay leaves and garlic cloves and set the whole thing back on the coals to boil. She heated up milk in mugs, and went to the cellar to draw some ale for her father. She swept the entry way and laid out a cloth and worked and worked to keep her mind from thinking.
Don’t think, she told herself sternly. It’s not practical. Just work.
And so she did.
Her parents came home arm in arm. Her father threw open the door, caught his wife in his arms, and carried her over the threshold. Her mother, who was not one to truck in foolishness, indulged her husband with a laugh.
“If a man’s home is his castle,” her father boomed, “then I shall set this castle against the finest in all the land. There is not a better home anywhere, and there is not a better wife or a better child. I am the richest man in the world.” And his eyes gleamed and his grin broadened, and he was himself.
The nine pointed star on the Mayor’s hand.
The hand that shook my father’s hand bore the mark of the bandit.
Don’t think! It’s not practical.
“And what have you been doing all day, my girl?” her father said.
Áine cleared her throat. “Making soup, father. And playing with Fien.” She hated lying. She grabbed his left hand and kissed it, front and back. She grabbed his right hand and did the same thing. There was no mark. No mark at all. She felt a wave of relief as big as the ocean.
“I’ve warmed milk, and the soup should be ready soon. But there are dice there. And cards. We can play a game.” She narrowed her eyes. “But you mustn’t cheat, Papa,” Áine warned.
Her mother stood behind her father as he sat down, her hands flat on his shoulders, dark circles under her eyes. Áine thought that perhaps she hadn’t slept the night before. Her mother leaned over and kissed the top of her father’s head, laying her cheek for a moment on that red, red hair.
Her father laughed. “Oh, my dear sweet child,” he said with a sly grin. “I always cheat. Never trust a clever man. And no one is as clever as I.” And he winked.
Áine felt a sudden chill as her father began to deal out the cards. She told herself she was being silly. Her mother stood up, and pulled her hands away, smoothing her hair away from her face, then fidgeting with her skirts.
“This is true my love,” she said slowly. “You are the king of cleverness.” Her eyes were dark and flat and blank, her face pale, motionless and glassy, like the face of the calmest sea, just before a storm.
Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband, three children, and very old dog. Her debut novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack, received four starred reviews. Her second book, Iron-Hearted Violet, was a Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner and an Andre Norton Award finalist. The Witch’s Boy is her third novel.